The gender education gap – an equalities issue that can no longer be ignored

Published in The Guardian

As the Member of Parliament for the City of Lincoln, I have been struck by the underperformance of boys in education compared to girls. It is an issue often raised with me when visiting schools, colleges, universities, businesses and training providers across my constituency. I also see it with my own eyes. There are too many young men hanging around when they should be in work, on an Apprenticeship or at university or college. It is also clear to me that this issue crosses all social classes, geographical areas and ethnic groups, it is not just a “working class” issue.

When I looked into how it was being tackled I have struck by the fact there was hardly anything. It was almost as though the issue had not permeated the Westminster or Whitehall “Bubble” even though it is clearly a “One Nation”, equalities and fairness issue. I am perplexed as to why there had been little action on the issue - if the genders were reversed, I am almost certain this would not be the case. Indeed for well over 25 years taxpayers’ money has welcomely and successfully been spent on encouraging female applications for STEM subjects and in more recent years, various Apprenticeships. Yet, there is no or little reciprocal focus on men becoming teachers, doctors or lawyers etc.

It is due to the lack of focus on this issue from successive Governments of all colours, from policymakers and from the education sector that I am leading a Parliamentary debate today on the educational underperformance of boys and the gender education gap.

This gap in attainment is stark, starts young and is not new. At Key Stage 2 (in old money, 11 years of age) the gap is six percentage points. For GCSEs, the gap for five A*-C including England and Maths is nine percentage points in England and over seven in the other three nations. Its impact is also stark. Annually 30,000 fewer boys than girls are becoming Apprentices, 60,000 fewer go to university every year (460,000 fewer over the past decade) and more young men who are Not In Education Employment or Training (NEETs) are unemployed. Fewer men are entering nearly all of the professions and between the ages of 22 and 29, young men earn less per hour on average than women, in both full-time and also part-time roles.

So what to do?
We need to make sure schools and colleges are boy-friendly through inspiring them, helping them see what they can achieve and also being positive about masculinity. It is OK for boys to like cars, building sites and generally getting dirty. Boys want to be young men, and young men want to be grown men – we should celebrate and nurture this, not try and make boys something they are not.  More male teachers would certainly help. The fact that there are only 15% male teachers in primaries and 38% at secondaries is a grave concern.

We should introduce three, five and seven year Apprenticeships that are both the equivalent to degrees and vocational for those who are not as academically minded. These of course should be available to girls as well. We need to think differently. It works in Germany and elsewhere around the world, why not here? Life-long learning is valued and works in Germany and in the USA. In this global race we in the UK are not even in the top set.

Many organisations have looked into the reasons for this with conclusions ranging from boys being slower developers than girls to they and their male role models, if they have them, holding less positive attitudes towards the value of education.

Lastly, we need Government and the education sector as a whole to step up to the plate. This is why I believe the Government needs to set up an Implementation Taskforce to find solutions and then implement them.

Successive Governments have given much focus, policy and leadership on matters such as the lack of women on Boards and the gender pay gap. No argument from me on that at all, but there is now an un-arguable case for the same focus on this matter. If not, there needs to be an explanation. We need equality for all.

This gender education gap affects boys, their families, communities, businesses and our Country as a whole. I have concerns around social cohesion, social mobility and the impact on the economy. We should all strive to ensure every young person in our great Country will have the opportunity to gain the skills we need to help us all compete as a nation. This is very much a One Nation issue and it is now time for action.

Karl McCartney MP